Covid-19 and Housing Challenges: Keeping People and Pets Together
Housing insecurity is a daunting problem that looms over many pet owners in our country even in times of relative social calm and economic stability. The COVID pandemic threatens to exponentially exacerbate this problem for pet owning renters and homeowners alike. Unprecedented job loss and widespread illness and the resulting financial stresses will undoubtedly mean missed rent and mortgage payments and the threat of eviction and foreclosure. Victims of domestic violence, along with their children and pets, often compelled to “stay at home” with their abusers, face additional challenges. The need to transition from one residence to another due to crisis induced factors such as finances and health and safety concerns also take an enormous toll on the entire family. Each of these factors, let alone several of them occurring in tandem, may force heart wrenching choices, such as relinquishment of pets to shelters, which in turn, may become overburdened with the unanticipated influx of animals. These negative impacts will undoubtedly be felt the most by those among us with the lowest income.
Many states and the federal government have taken some steps to address these issues, but more needs to be done, immediately and consistently by policy makers, private and public industry alike to better ensure that families – people and their pets – can stay together, safely and without fear of displacement during the pandemic.
Legal protections against eviction and foreclosure are essential during the pandemic
As the COVID19 pandemic unfolds, economists estimate that the national unemployment rate is at its highest level since the Great Depression. The devasting impact of such massive job loss and the economic uncertainty it engenders, will be felt deeply in the housing sector as people struggle to pay their rent or mortgage.
Federal and state governments have intervened to help mitigate potential impacts. As of publication, over three-quarters of governors, state legislatures and/or state courts have taken action to limit eviction proceedings, ranging from prohibiting new eviction actions to suspending evictions and foreclosures altogether. These orders are typically granting reprieves to financially strapped renters and homeowners for 60 to 90 days, depending upon the particular jurisdiction. In addition, the federal government passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES Act”) which includes immediate protections for tenants and homeowners, including prohibiting eviction of renters living in properties financed by federally-backed mortgages or in federally-assisted housing and offering forbearance for homeowners with federally-backed mortgage loans. The CARES Act also provides emergency funding for affordable housing programs managed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
These protections may help reduce some of the immediate financial pressure on renters and homeowners during an economically precarious time, but they do not cover everyone impacted, nor do they permanently waive payments. While such long term relief may not be practical at this time, all states should adopt robust protections for renters and homeowners affected by the Covid-19 pandemic to suspend all eviction and foreclosure proceedings for up to 90-days after the orders are lifted, and, at minimum, for as long as “shelter in place” orders are enforced, so that families have a chance to start regaining their financial footing.
The threat posed by loss of a home is, of course, felt as much by homeowners and renters without pets as by those with pets. But the loss of a home creates unique challenges for pet owners when they need to transition, even temporarily, to, or between rental housing.
Relaxing pet restriction in rental housing will help keep pets and people together during this crisis
Despite some progress nationally in increasing access to pet-friendly housing, pet restrictions remain an enormous hurdle for renters everywhere across the country. These restrictions may be imposed by landlords or insurance companies and range from full prohibitions on pets to arbitrary limitations on size, breed, species, number and weight. While it remains critical for policy makers to focus on removing these barriers in their communities, landlords and insurance companies have an opportunity right now to respond to the urgent needs of tenants caused by the pandemic by reducing restrictions on pets to relieve some pressure on individuals faced with tenuous housing situations. Doing so can also benefit landlords, who may be experiencing higher than usual vacancy rates and can expand their pool of renters by relaxing some existing restrictions. They may well find, as research has shown, that landlords who allow pets do not report higher damage costs or longer turnover times between rentals.
Among the meaningful steps that should be taken now:
- Insurance companies and residential landlords should relax breed prohibitions and waive size and weight restrictions.
- Residential landlords should consider deferring or waiving “pet rent” and/or pet deposits if these pose a barrier for individual tenants to access or remain in rental housing
- Landlords should relax limits on the number and types of pets that are authorized.
- Landlords should consider temporarily suspending requirements that pets be spayed or neutered as a condition of tenancy. Many animal welfare organizations have been compelled to temporarily stop performing spay and neuter surgeries to maintain social distancing requirements and curb the spread of the virus and to conserve protective medical gear needed so critically elsewhere. Waiving the spay/neuter requirements right now can allow more families to assist animal shelters by fostering pets and can allow for emergency sheltering of pets that may need a temporary home due to an owner’s illness. Many shelters have been able to move out much of their populations into foster and adoptive homes during the crisis. Assisting in this effort would be an invaluable service to the community that will likely pay dividends beyond the pandemic, with shelters able to look ahead to meeting the myriad of future needs rather than being overburdened for an extended period by owner relinquished pets.
- Landlords should be flexible in how they apply and enforce their standard policies to help their current tenants and pets stay in their homes together.
COVID-19 poses special challenges for pet owners who are victims of domestic violence
Under ordinary circumstances, statistics are dire for victims of domestic violence with pets. Research indicates that up to 89 percent of pet-owning women entering domestic violence shelters report that their abuser threatened, harmed, or killed a family pet. Additionally, as many as 48 percent of domestic violence victims with pets delay seeking safety, fearing what would happen if they left their pets behind.
Victim service agencies are understandably concerned about the potential for an increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic as restrictions put in place to protect public health make escaping from an abusive situation much more difficult. “Stay at home” orders that result in abusers and their victims confined together in close quarters add to the emotional and economic stresses already experienced by so many during the crisis. Reports of increasing rates of domestic violence have begun to surface around the world. “In China, domestic violence is reported to have tripled during their shelter in-place mandate. Additionally, France has indicated a 30% increase in domestic violence reports, Brazil estimates domestic violence report have jumped 40-50%, and Italy has also indicated reports of domestic violence are on the rise.”
More volatile domestic situations are a threat to vulnerable people and pets in the home. It is therefore critical that key agencies work together during this crisis to protect victims of domestic violence and their entire families, including their animal companions.
Recognizing that so many of our first responders are themselves experiencing staffing and resource constraints due to COVID -19, the steps we suggest here should be considered in light of what is reasonable for each community at the time. Simply recognizing the need and attempting to meet it to whatever degree is possible in such trying times will go a long way toward improving the situation for victims of DV and their pets both now and after the pandemic.
Steps that should be taken wherever possible:
- First responders working with victims, (including law enforcement, hotline dispatch staff, adult and child protective services caseworkers) should integrate questions about pets/other animals in their standard interaction protocols and be a resource for available services for victims of DV with pets in their area. Additional resources:
- Animal service agencies should work in partnership with law enforcement to help transport animals to safety if victims cannot do so themselves.
- Law enforcement escorts should be provided for victims who have fled a residence and need to return to retrieve their pets
- Shelters should consider providing services, such as emergency boarding, for pets of victims of domestic violence.
- Domestic violence prevention advocates should help victims incorporate their pets into their safety plans so that they can act swiftly when needed while including all vulnerable family members.
- Those assisting victims in petitioning for orders of protection should be aware of the many laws that expressly authorize inclusion of pets/other animals.
- In a number of states, pets may also be included in orders of protection by virtue of provisions allowing protection for “personal property” or permitting a court to order “other relief” for victims of domestic violence. Note also that, in some jurisdictions, acts of animal cruelty are expressly recognized as forms of domestic violence.
- Veterinarians should lend their invaluable assistance by partnering with local programs to provide veterinary care and/or temporary boarding for pets of DV victims. They should also consider making resources available in public areas of their clinics, if presently accessible and/or online (on clinic websites or via email communications with clients).
- Other animal professionals can assist by offering boarding and/or other services (e.g., grooming); pet supply retailers can assist through donating food and other supplies that may not be accessible to victims due to economic abuse including supplies that may assist victims in getting their pets to safety, such as carriers and leashes.
- Rental housing providers and mortgage companies should be aware of any applicable legal changes during COVID, such as suspension of eviction and foreclosure proceedings and even when not required by law, should embrace the opportunity to help ensure that domestic violence survivors and their pets have access to safe housing during this time
Like so many other societal issues that become only more pronounced during times of great economic and social upheaval, housing challenges for pet owners, especially those with lower incomes, will almost certainly become more prevalent as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Proactive steps taken now by government at all levels and by other key community stakeholders can minimize the damaging impact and help ensure that people and pets have a safe and secure place to call home during this crisis and long after it has passed.
 Fitzgerald, A. J., Barrett, B. J., Stevenson, R., & Cheung, C. H. (2019). Animal Maltreatment in the Context of Intimate Partner Violence: A Manifestation of Power and Control? Violence Against Women, 25, 1806-1828. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801218824993
 Barrett, B. J., Fitzgerald, A., Stevenson, R., & Cheung, C. H. (2017). Animal maltreatment as a risk marker of more frequent and severe forms of intimate partner violence. Journal of Interpersonal Violence. https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260517719542
 Campbell. A.M. 2020. An Increasing Risk of Family Violence during the Covid-19 Pandemic:
Strengthening Community Collaborations to Save Lives. Forensic Science International: Reports.
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